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Postpartum Depression by Denee Burgess, Graduate Student University of Alberta

posted Jan 11, 2011, 1:52 AM by Tascheleia Marangoni

Postpartum depression is a common mood disturbance that affects 10-20% of women upon giving birth. Insights into brain chemical alterations associated with pregnancy and the postpartum are instrumental to better understanding this important period of a woman’s life. Investigations of the biological alterations associated with the development of postpartum depression will be key in the treatment and the prevention of postpartum depression.

Postpartum depression is unlike the “baby blues” which affects up to 80% of all new moms in the first few days and subsides within a week or two following delivery. Instead, postpartum depression usually begins within the first two to three months following. Initially, a mother may have difficulties falling asleep, even if her baby is sleeping. A mother may find that she becomes extremely worried about very small matters or may have unexplainable feelings of anxiety. Women with postpartum depression may develop persistent, repetitive and troubling thoughts that centre around the well-being of her baby. As a result, the woman may develop persistent and repetitive behaviours to help soothe her fears about her child’s safety. As postpartum depression worsens, a woman may begin experiencing dramatic changes in her mood that interfere with her daily routines and caring for her baby. She may experience changes in her appetite, difficulty concentrating, feelings of extreme sadness, guilt, worthlessness, and a loss of interest in activities she once enjoyed.

Nonetheless, women who suffer from postpartum depression experience feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness, which impact the baby and the mother-infant relationship. The role that postpartum depression plays on the mother-infant relationship is costly as it results in suboptimal cognitive and emotional development in the child.

The large time frame for when symptoms of postpartum depression may occur makes it difficult to catch its development and hard to treat. Although treatment options exist for postpartum depression, the exact biological cause of postpartum depression remains elusive. The hormonal related biochemical changes and imbalances in the brain that are suspected to play a crucial role in the development of postpartum depression have not been identified. The Brain Neurobiology Research Program at the University of Alberta, in collaboration with the department of Biomedical Engineering, is using a state of the art approach for non-invasive measurement of various brain neurochemicals using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). This approach aims at measuring brain chemical imbalances that are associated with the occurrence of postpartum depression.

As the goal of our research team remains to investigate the exact link between certain brain neurochemical fluctuations and postpartum depressive symptoms, the link between the two has yet to be determined. Preliminary results from our research program suggest that a brain neurochemical called glutamate is decreased in the anterior part of the frontal area of the brain in women who suffer from postpartum depression compared to women who do not. This data also suggest that glutamate levels may start to decrease prior to the occurrence of postpartum depression symptoms. This leads to the conceptual future possibility of using MRI to detect the women at risk of developing postpartum depression and to development of prophylactic treatment that is unique and specific to postpartum depressive symptoms. For a mother suffering from postpartum depression, advancing these findings have clear implications for the overall health of women.